The word ‘feminist’ has ugly connotations, so much so that I often hesitate before pointing out gender inequities. Does it do any good to state the obvious, given that it is unlikely to rectify injustice, and indeed risks riling up, or boring, those who are just not bothered by that sort of thing?
For some reason, my system refuses to become sensitized. It rankles every single time. Every time I turn the pages of a newspaper and see that the majority of serious stories are about men, maneuvering for positions of power in government, finance, business and sport. Every time I read the statistics about how women still almost universally receive lower pay than their male counterparts for doing the same job. Every time I switch on a BBC quiz or comedy show and see that the three people arrayed on either side of the host are all, or nearly all, men.
It gets worse when we venture into science. Let’s leave aside the obvious figures about the scarcity of female scientists above the post-doctoral level. I’d like to focus on the public face of science. It bothers me every time a science documentary employs all or mostly male scientists as expert talking heads. Every time ‘the best’ science bloggers are published, and most of them are male. Every time I run my eye down a long-list of science book prize candidates and see one women, or page through a science magazine and see that few of the pundits are women, or listen to a science podcast and hear only men’s voices, or watch science programs on TV and see mostly male presenters.
What rankles me most of all are cases when, instead of getting a few female scientists to join with their male counterparts on the quiz show, panel or magazine, the producers prefer to ask male celebrities who have become known for being “science-y” even though, actually, they might have only done a science degree long ago, or have written a book featuring a bit of science – or have just confessed to being a little bit “geeky” because that’s rather trendy at the moment. The message is clear – it doesn’t matter who fills those slots, as long as they’re well-known (and, possibly, male, though that’s not as clear, as I’ll discuss in a moment).
I think we can agree that in the world of popular science, women are largely invisible. I have, of course, heard the usual arguments: there really aren’t any well-known female scientists. Well, except X, Y and Z, who get trotted out again and again as if they are the only interesting, talented and articulate women in the country. Where is the female Stephen Hawking, the female David Attenborough, the female Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones, Martin Rees, Brian Cox? Why is nearly every up-and-coming television science presenter (who doesn’t even have to be a practicing scientist) a man? Why does no one seem to care about the opinions of female scientists, or female non-scientists with past science credentials, or think that audiences wouldn’t want to listen to them?
I suspect the answer is not deliberate sexism. I suspect that it is all down to the cult of celebrity, and that men are just better at becoming famous in traditionally male-dominated fields like science. Given a choice between filling a seat with an unknown female scientist or a non-scientist rock star, anyone worried about audience numbers is always going to go for the celeb. You could also argue that science needs all the glamor it can get, so it would be madness not to snag a famous comedian if you can swing it, to make your production more palatable to the masses. I respect these reasons, but I don’t think it has to be this way.
And this is why: there is no such thing as a celebrity who did not take his first step out of obscurity. Physicist Brian Cox may right now be the most sought-after talking scientist head in Britain, but there must have been a time when someone took a punt and gave their platform to an unknown quantity. I assume that, for whatever reason, unknown male scientists are more likely to push themselves into the spotlight than their female counterparts – so if an insightful or broad-minded producer or editor wants to discover the next female Brian Cox, he or she needs to give them a hand up. If you don’t put any thought into the line-up of your program, you’ll just end up with the usual bunch of men.
The non-scientific media can occasionally be good at this. I’m thinking of something like BBC News Night Review, which often features obscure young female pundits on the sofa next to their established regulars. Someone, in this case, is obviously putting some effort into researching, approaching and fostering new talent. Alternatively, established male scientist pundits might occasionally recommend articulate and outgoing female colleagues to their producer contacts. All it takes is a little thought, and a little extra work. I know scores of fabulously funny and insightful women scientists and science-related folk who could genuinely engage with a broader audience, whether in print or broadcasting: why do we seldom hear from these people?
I guess the more important question is this: is it actually a problem that our ambassadors for science are all or mostly men, as long as they are talented and the message gets across? Some people don’t think so: for example in a recent Twitter exchange about the absence of women on the inaugural episode of the podcast Strange Quarks, although Martin Robbins expressed regret, Alice Bell tweeted “…I’m not too fussed abt numbers tbh, it’s quality + context around these things that matter”, although she also allowed “I think it’s worth noting big gap like that b/c often people don’t think to ask.”
But I’m afraid it is problem for me, because I do know these wonderful but obscure female colleagues who would love the chance to reach a broader audience, and the glaring injustice overshadows everything else. It might also be a problem for young women interested in science, who have little more than starving models, footballers’ wives and singers in rehab for role models and who see or hear little recognizable as themselves in the science-related media.
I don’t know. Is noticing the gap and appreciating what may be the perfectly valid reasons behind it, as Alice suggests, enough, or do we actually want to change things? It is important to stress that I am not advocating getting mediocre women involved for the sake of looking balanced: that’s anathema to me. I am stressing that I would like to see more excellent women, women who are as good or better than the men that routinely appear, involved in the science media world. They exist, and many of them are willing. If they don’t put themselves forward into a world where they can see little or nothing like themselves, can you blame them? Would getting more women involved break the vicious circle of no women being routinely seen leading to no women worthy of being asked, because nobody knows who they are, or even notices their absence?
I think it just might. Why don’t we do the experiment?